The U.S. and some European countries have not provided Ukraine with long-range weapons capable of striking inside Russian borders. The official reason for the hesitancy is to prevent any further escalation in the war. Does their hesitation mean that Ukraine forces attacking within Russian borders would change the nature of the current war from Ukrainian self-defense to foreign aggression?

  • 3
    A 800 pound gorilla in the room is that de facto the West is a party to the conflict, even if officially (de jure) none of western countries are in a state of war with Russia. It is a rather thin line - Russia has so far refrained from attacking weapon shipments and otherwise retaliating directly against western participation, but striking with western weapons inside Russia may change this situation and the hell will break loose. Sep 27, 2022 at 11:31
  • 7
    I think this question is speculative, because the escalation would depend on what kind of attack happend (attacking a military airfield might be seen as more acceptable than attacking a railway hub in a civilian area). It might be more fitting for this site to ask how Ukraine's allies justify their belief that providing said weapons leads to an escalation.
    – xyldke
    Sep 27, 2022 at 11:40
  • Ukraine has already attacked targets on the Krim peninsula which Russia considers as part of its territory (the Ukraine, the US and the EU do not). Russia made some angry noises when this happened but didn't change their behavior in any significant way.
    – quarague
    Sep 27, 2022 at 12:17
  • @quarague From my understanding they are attacking areas that are being used to advance the war in their country. Considering that the two countries share a border it isn't hard for Russia to keep supplies or attack points in their country under the guise of making them harder to attack.
    – Joe W
    Sep 27, 2022 at 13:31
  • This is not answerable at this point. However bear in mind that Ukraine is extremely dependent on European support and that Europe is in many ways not having a good time of things. Anything that brings widespread support to the "voices for peace" (i.e. cut a bad deal with Russia) would be really bad for them. Especially when gas runs low. They've been careful to mostly not recognize what would normally be perfectly justified attacks on military logistical targets in Russia: theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/01/… Sep 27, 2022 at 16:22

4 Answers 4


Does their hesitation mean that Ukraine forces attacking within Russian borders would change the nature of the current war from Ukrainian self-defense to foreign aggression?

It depends on what you mean by "the nature of the current war".

From the UN Charter point of view, Article 51 gives Ukraine the right to self-defence in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. There are no rules that prevent Ukraine from attacking military targets in Russia. Relevant is Article 52 of Protocol I of the Geneva Convention which covers international armed conflicts. Section 2 states:

Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

Russia might not see it that way though. The 2014 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation contains the following provision:

The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

The decision to use nuclear weapons shall be taken by the President of the Russian Federation.

In his September 21st announcement, President Putin said:

In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.

The above statement was made in the context of supposed nuclear threats by "leading NATO countries (...) against Russia". Nevertheless, attacks on Russian territory may be seen by Russia as an escalation and they may escalate in kind. Whether they will, or whether they would consider their territorial integrity to be under threat can only be answered by speculation.

Let's go to your title question:

Will Ukraine jeopardize its position as a country waging a war of self-defense if it attacks deep inside Russian territory?

It depends on who you'd ask. From an international law perspective it is permissible to attack military targets on Russian soil.

Russia may see it as an escalation. On the other hand, Russia does not see Ukraine's fight as self-defense. If anything, President Putin's September 21st speech makes it seem as if Russia is engaged in a pre-emptive war of self defense. Quoting again from his recent speech:

After the Kiev regime publicly refused to settle the issue of Donbass peacefully and went as far as to announce its ambition to possess nuclear weapons, it became clear that a new offensive in Donbass – there were two of them before – was inevitable, and that it would be inevitably followed by an attack on Russia’s Crimea, that is, on Russia.

In this connection, the decision to start a pre-emptive military operation was necessary and the only option. The main goal of this operation, which is to liberate the whole of Donbass, remains unaltered.


It only makes sense to even consider whether Ukraine is exceeding her right to self-defense if she should move beyond her current war goal of restoring her internationally-recognized borders. Attacking Russian military targets anywhere in Russia or Ukraine is certainly fine, as would be a temporary occupation of eg Belgorod meant to put pressure on the Russian leadership.

Continuing the war after a Russian offer of withdrawel (from the entirety of Ukraine) and ceasefire could go too far, but there might a case that asking for security guarantees, reparations, a demilitarized border zones, return of upducted Ukrainians, etc are also permissible war goals.

For comparison, the Gulf War was not conducted only on Kuwaiti territory, and did not end immediately after Iraqi troops had been expulsed from Kuwait. Instead, the coalition conducted an extensive air campaign against targets in Iraq, and conducted a short but decisive ground invasion. The war stopped when it was clear that Kuwait from safe from future Iraqi agrression.

Any talk about "escalation" in the Ukraine war does not pertain to whether actions from Ukraine or "the West" would transgress international law, but to a fear that Russia might use nuclear weapons or directly attack "the West" in response.


As other answers (notably jjj) pointed out, legally Ukraine is allowed to attack military targets deep inside Russia. There are two political issues to consider:

  • As Russia sees it, Ukraine is unreasonably resisting 'denazification' and the re-inclusion in the Russian motherland. Russia is punishing Ukraine for this resistance, and it might hit Ukraine harder if Ukraine fights back more effectively.

  • As Ukrainian public diplomacy is explaining to Western audiences, and as Western audiences largely agree, Ukraine is
    (a) the plucky underdog resisting brutal Russian aggression, against all odds and with great courage and sacrifice, and
    (b) the frontline state standing up to Russian aggression which might otherwise hit the Baltics, Finland, Poland, or others.

The second bullet point is why Ukraine is getting nearly unprecedented diplomatic, humanitarian, financial, intelligence, and equipment support from the West. The West is suffering painful economic dislocations because they did not acquiesce to Russian aggression (as President Putin probably thought they would). The Ukraine must convince Western populations that continuing support is worthwhile, which requires a careful balance of appearing capable of winning with enough support, in need of more support to win, and worthy of that support.

A deep strike that is the equivalent of hitting the Moskva would probably benefit their image. A missile barrage against a railway junction (used by civilian and military traffic) or a factory (with collateral damage on nearby residential areas) might not, even if it legally meets all tests of military necessity and proportionality.


From the view point of Russia, Ukraine is not a country waging a war of self-defense: Russia is. It is not possible to "jeopardize" something that have never existed.

The view point of EU and USA is less obvious, but attacking clearly military objects that are directly involved in the invasion (fuel, munition depots) across the boarder have been described as "completely legitimate" and “not necessarily a problem”. Also, Ukraine will likely fight for Crimea as for the own territory without losing much of the status.

The attempt to occupy the country as large as Russia would be imaginable only if some deep internal collapse or civil war would happen in that country. If Ukraine would try to use this to occupy Russia, it obviously would lose the status of a country waging a war of self-defense.

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